Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Parallel Play

Any Good Books, April 2010

Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s
Tim Page (2009, Doubleday)

Tim Page was forty-five years old when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, information which he met with a thrill of recognition amounting to relief. “I felt as though I had stumbled on my secret biography. Here it all was--the computer-like retention, the physical awkwardness, the difficulties with peers and lovers, the need for routine and repetition, the narrow, specialized interests... .” Parallel Play is his own version of that biography, a memoir of walking through the world as a stranger.
He was lucky, mostly, that he was very bright. Precociously verbal and an early reader, Page absorbed information on his pet subjects thirstily. He obsessed over maps, stories, silent films, and music; in his preteen years, he played the piano, composed music, wrote stories, and produced and directed movies with the neighborhood kids.
But being bright only helped up to a point. He baffled his classmates with learned disquisitions on Enrico Caruso and D. W. Griffith, and drove his teachers mad with his inability to pay attention to their subjects. Biology and Algebra were simply not of his world, and he wound up failing or skipping the better part of high school, to the consternation of his father, a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut.
The bright spots in his story include a few perceptive and sympathetic adults Page had the good fortune to meet: the grade-school teachers who let him stay inside at recess and read the encyclopedia; the school nurse who let him hide out in the dark quiet of her office; the UConn librarian who pointed him to the books about old opera stars; the high school English teacher who challenged him as a writer; and a teacher he met during a summer at Tanglewood, who suggested he might be a natural New Yorker. This idea, and the concomitant notion that Page might make himself at home at the Mannes College of Music, turned out to make a great deal of sense, leading (by way of Columbia University) to a career in music criticism.
Some of what made Page’s life better was of his own doing: at the age of twenty, he decided to leave drugs and cigarettes behind, and not to waste the years he had left; he learned to meditate, which gave him a measure of daily peace. In his second year at Mannes, he pushed himself to make new friends by the simple expedient of introducing himself to one stranger a day in the student lounge.
Such gumption is one of the compelling things about Parallel Play; another is the sharp, clear writing. How’s this for a credo: “...while I admire poetic opacity in certain authors and filmmakers, I cannot tolerate it in my own work. You may or may not like something I’ve written, but I’ll do my damnedest to ensure that you know what I wanted to say.”
Page disclaims any special credit for honesty, holding that “telling the truth about my life seems to me not only the moral imperative of this book but its sole excuse.” The truth-telling may also, in itself, be a facet of Asperger’s, both in Page’s extraordinary recall of his feelings, and in his inability to bend the truth for anyone’s comfort, including his own. Having so long battled with extreme self-consciousness, he’s now possessed of an exceptional self-awareness, as when he talks about his distance from his beloved sons: “Perhaps I had to fight off too much intrusion from my father. Then again, as I sometimes fear, perhaps I am not quite a mammal.”
Ah, but no, doesn’t that fear sound profoundly human? Sad, funny, and brave, like this lovely book. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Known World

I read books so that you won't have to, but they're usually good ones. In February of 2005, however--

A Rant

The Known World: A Novel
Edward P. Jones

Quoth Amazon--
Award Winner: The Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award
Editorial Reviews -- Book Description
In one of the most acclaimed novels in recent memory, Edward P. Jones, two-time National Book Award finalist, tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can't uphold the estate's order and chaos ensues. In a daring and ambitious novel, Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all of its moral complexities.

Well, that's all fine, but a more incompetently written novel I have seldom seen. Some of the characters in this book are unlettered, and unaccustomed to the niceties of punctuation and grammar; but there's no excuse for the writer and editor to be likewise. Where to begin?

Consider: "The mule followed him, and after he had prepared the animal for the night and came out, Moses smelled the coming of rain." Why are people calling this beautiful writing, when it's not even grammatical? When you read it out loud, don't you stumble over the change of tenses? (In fact, every page I tried failed the reading-aloud test.)

Or this: "The 1940 U.S. census contained an enormous amount of facts,..." Ouch.

The characters are no less inchoate. "Fern Elston had chosen not to follow her siblings and many of her cousins into a life of being white." The paragraph goes on to explain why this was a good choice. The next paragraph begins, "But it had never crossed Fern's mind to pass as white." Well, which is it? Did she choose, or did she never think about it? Either assertion would tell us something about the character, but the contradiction is nonsense.

Worse, Jones cannot decide what part of the story he is telling at any given time. He can't resist foreshadowing, so much so that when we finally get to the episode in question, there's nothing left to tell. He also thinks nothing of going back over information we've long since been given. Here's page 143: "Calvin, Caldonia's twin brother, said to her, ..." This is meant to be helpful, perhaps, but have we really forgotten it since page 141? Are we being taken for amnesiacs, or is Jones just not paying attention?

In places, Jones seems to be writing with a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other; we're told things and immediately told that they don't matter:
"Bennett started up again and Skiffington went down the steps to the road, the dust rising almost imperceptibly as he set both feet down. A good rain would do us all some good. He looked over his shoulder. The door to the jail was open just a bit, but it did not matter because he had no prisoners that day."
So why tell us about it? And is that second sentence a quote of what Skiffington is thinking, or what? How are we supposed to know? And why is he thinking that, if you can barely see the dust? And how do you set 'both feet' down, anyhow--did he jump off the last step, or should that be 'each foot'? Makes me cranky.

The overall effect is of being told the plot of a twelve-part miniseries by a carful of eight-year-olds. Breathless run-on sentences, narrative meandering into pointless dead ends, ceaseless interruptions for 'oh, yeah' explanations,-- the short of it is, you're not in reliable hands with the narrator. As storytelling, it's a soup sandwich.

This is the sort of book that B. R. Myers is describing in "A Reader's Manifesto", that makes you wonder what book the rapturous critics were reading. What makes them so snow-blind? Do they love to be bored by droning repetition? or confused by sentences that buck the reader off in the middle? or do they really find this novel "a modern masterpiece, which not only tells an unforgettable story, but does so with such elegance, grace, and mystery that it, finally, staggers the imagination."? That's from Jeffry Lent: remind me not to try reading his own bestseller.

I also have to wonder, if The Known World had had a competent editor, who had cut a hundred-plus pages of repetition and premonition, (and organized the events sequentially, and repaired the prose, and given the characters individual voices) would that better book still have won a Pulitzer? If not, why not? and if so, why didn't somebody see to it?

I know, I know, it's a waste of energy to hate something so passionately, but if this is what Literature is coming to, I'm going to stick to Books.

CTR